Students Teaching Students
Chemistry students work out problems together in the Active Learning Center
Many students who were high achievers in high school struggle with introductory chemistry courses when they start college. Recognizing this issue at Pacific, Chemistry Professor Silvio Rodriguez established a peer-leader team learning program to offer students support.
The program consists of once-a-week workshops in which a small group of students get together under the guidance of trained student leaders. During the sessions, participants work through a set of problems related to the course content.
Peer-Leader Team Learning (PLTL) is a common tool used in higher education, and it provides an effective way to help new students adjust to the academic rigors of college. The Chemistry Department launched its first PLTL program a few years ago for Organic Chemistry I and II (CHEM 121 and CHEM 123) and expanded it to include General Chemistry (CHEM 25 and CHEM 27) and Elements of Chemistry (CHEM 23) in 2009.
The workshops are not mandatory, but about 60% of students attend them. The peer leaders facilitate the discussion, but let the participants work out the problems for themselves as much as possible. The main idea is for the students to gain experience and confidence solving challenging problems as a group.
"They're very helpful," said one of the participants. "In o-chem, I learn more from the workshops than from the lectures."
Peer leaders are selected based in part on their demonstrated success in chemistry. The selected students must take the course Teaching and Learning Chemistry (CHEM132), in which they learn how to mentor fellow students. About 40 students are hired each semester to serve the 400 students in the three introductory chemistry courses. In addition to receiving a paycheck, peer leaders benefit from the experience when applying for scholarships, graduate programs or jobs.
"The workshops are a good way for me to review, and getting to teach people is always pretty cool," said Alex Yen, a student workshop leader.
One thing Dr. Rodriguez likes about the PLTL program is that in this age of texts and Tweets, it forces students to interact in person, which he believes helps their communication skills—a critical element to a successful career. He noted that some students hired as peer leaders feel insecure about their roles at first, but then discover that they really enjoy teaching and are natural at it.
"We have seen good results from the peer learning program, and it has become an integral part of our teaching experience in Chemistry," said Dr. Rodriguez.
Senior Associate Dean Edie Sparks has been supportive of the program, and she would like to see similar programs developed for other disciplines in the College of the Pacific. The Math Department piloted a peer learning program in 2009-2010, which they hope to reestablish in the near future. The Biology Department is also working on a peer-based learning program for its introductory biology courses.